Complementary vs. Alternative Therapies

Conventional treatments for colorectal cancer—surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy—are very effective in giving you the best chances for a successful outcome. These treatment methods have been extensively tested by medical experts, and have proven their capabilities.


While researching your options, you may hear about other methods, such as special diets, acupuncture, new compounds, and others. Some of these methods may have a place in your treatment plan as a means to relieve some of the symptoms. Others may be harmful. It’s extremely important that you understand the difference between so-called conventional or traditional medicine, and complementary or alternative therapies.

Conventional treatment is what is currently accepted by reputable healthcare providers. It is based on decades of sound medical research, and represents the best that Western medicine has to offer today.

Complementary treatments may or may not have been rigorously evaluated. But over time they have been successfully used to relieve side effects of cancer treatment and to enhance the quality of life.

Alternative therapies, by contrast, have no medically sound foundation. Instead, they may be a dangerous temptation for those who distrust traditional medical treatment.

It is estimated that as much as 70% of cancer patients use some form of complementary or alternative therapy. If you decide to use either one, you should feel free to confess your decision to your physician. If you are not comfortable sharing such details with the person you have entrusted with your care, perhaps you should change providers. In general, you can use complementary therapies while you are in remission or off chemotherapy, but during periods of active treatment you should discuss the issue with your physician.


There is a wide variety of complementary techniques, some based on principles adopted from other specialties (for example, relaxation), from Oriental medicine (acupuncture) from Indian medicine (yoga), or even from ancient Egyptian culture (aromatherapy.)

Mind/Body Connection
Many complementary therapies are based on the principle of mind/body connection: the powerful correlation between the state of the mind and the health of the body.

Dawn A. Flickema, MD – Mind-body connection

Recently, scientists have identified chemicals, called neurotransmitters, by which nerve cells communicate with one another.  Neurotransmitters are also involved in the control of emotions.  For example, antidepressant medications increase the amount of norepinephrine and serotonin in the spaces between nerve cells.  These same neurotransmitters have effects elsewhere in the body, affecting heart rate and blood pressure, and may even influence the activity of cells in the immune system.

Changes in the state of the nervous system, which can be caused by stress or lack of social support, can influence many of the other organ systems. For example, it has been found that people under stress are more likely to develop colds.

Anxiety, grief and fear of the unknown all seem to have a negative impact on the body. Learning how to cope with these emotions, using a wide variety of approaches—such as meditation and visualization, spiritual support, and participation in support groups—may help speed your recovery, and benefit your health.

There is no claim that meditation cures cancer, but studies have proven that it can reduce pain, nausea and other uncomfortable side effects of cancer treatment.

Meditation and relaxation have been shown to decrease blood pressure, respiration rate, and metabolism—all of which contribute to reducing stress on our minds and bodies.

Spiritual Support
Prayer, laying on of hands, and many forms of spiritual imagery or inner dialogue have helped patients find the higher strength within themselves to cope with cancer and other illness. Even those who have little or no connection with religion, often find themselves moved by the “spiritual emergency” of cancer.

Humor and Laughter
Laughter can stimulate your body to produce endorphins—natural chemicals that act like opiates in the brain. You might find humor and laughter emotionally healing. In addition, giving yourself time not to think about your cancer can have a wonderfully invigorating effect. Treat yourself to a comedy movie, or read a joke book. It may prove a welcome addition to your daily routine.

The theory behind acupuncture is that a “vital energy” or “life force” controls the function of our organs. This life force flows along meridian lines. Diseases are caused by an imbalance in this flow. By inserting needles at specific points on the body, called meridian points, normal flow can be restored, and the disease cured.

Dawn A. Flickema, MD – About acupuncture

Current research suggest that acupuncture may work by triggering the release of natural pain inhibitors. A number of western physicians have successfully used acupuncture to relieve nausea, pain or other symptoms associated with cancer.

Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants
A variety of compounds, including certain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants have been used with varying success to decrease the side effects of cancer treatment, speed recovery and improve well being. Ask your healthcare team to review the latest evidence with you.

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